Joanna Barsh: How I Learned to "Grow Wherever You Work"

Sarah Harrison Smith on December 26, 2017
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Barsh_by_Ylva_Erevall.jpgJoanna Barsh began her long career in global business as a production assistant in the movie industry, where she says she "spent my days trying to do my best, getting yelled out, and being bored." How times change. Now director emerita at McKinsey & Co., Barsh has written three books to help people move ahead and excel in their careers. The latest in this trilogy is Grow Wherever You Work: Straight Talk to Help with Your Toughest Challenges. Praised by Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Angela Duckworth (of Grit), Grow Wherever You Work includes case studies of the challenges faced by over 200 rising leaders on their way to the top. Barsh talked to the Amazon Book Review about her own work struggles, who will benefit from reading this new book, and her response to the #MeToo movement. If you'd like more of Grow Wherever You Work, sit tight. We'll have an exclusive excerpt later in the week.

Amazon Book Review: Joanna, what led you to write this book?

Joanna Barsh: My earlier research focused first on why some women rose to the top. It started with my own professional journey and personal questions – and I was 50 years old at the start.  A few hundred interviews in, by this time including men CEOs too, we had shaped a leadership approach designed for executives (or anyone for that matter) seeking to lead through times of big changes. Our team at McKinsey & Company helped transform these concepts into experiential training for middle and senior level executives. We called it Centered Leadership, to reflect how most of what we experience gets better when we lead from our center.

I recognized that it did not work as well for younger professionals. In particular, young women would ask me questions that older professionals never raised, like, “What if you don’t have any passion?” or, “How do I move on from a career-stopping mistake?” Not only were their questions different, but they needed role models closer to their age and work experience. Confronted with remarkable senior women leaders, some would say, “I cannot see the steps from where I stand to where they sit,” or “I don’t want what they have sacrificed so much to obtain.”

My own Millennial daughters were among the skeptics. In a way, I embarked on this new research for them – to help guide them on their work journeys (without a heavy hand). More than two hundred interviews later, this time with remarkable men and women Millennials, I had the findings and material to help rising leaders earlier in their careers.

Your first book, How Remarkable Women Lead was directed at female readers. What kind of reader will benefit most from Grow Wherever You Work?

This time, younger female readers are going to find the book in my ‘trilogy’ that speaks to them. My first book helped women partway through their careers to lift their ambition and step up to lead. Brave men leaders, comfortable in their own skin, read it too. My second book, Centered Leadership, teaches everyone the steps to this leadership approach – whether they are expert facilitators and coaches or individuals looking to grow on their own. This third book is for younger women seeking more concrete guidance, without the preachiness or arrogance that older scholars inadvertently convey. That’s not to say that younger male readers aren’t going to find the book. It’s full of men’s stories too! In fact, I included stories of individual challenges to show that tough, strong women face bullies and that reflective men face their fears, in order to counter stereotypes. 

Where does it fit with other books on the market?

There are lots of books on the market that teach you how to write a great resume, succeed in a job interview, or make a decision about which job is best for you. They’re focused on the process of finding jobs, succeeding in them, and winning that promotion. Don’t open my book for that instruction! GROW focuses on the harder challenges we all face in order to accelerate the emotional growth of rising leaders at work. It addresses questions like, “Is it time to leave your job?” and “How can you get the most out of a lousy review?” or “How do you learn to take good risks at work?” I’m sure there have been books like this in the past, but not filled with real life experiences of real people facing real challenges at work today. Their honest stories are like ‘instant experience’ for readers who don’t have years of personal work experience to draw on.

When you were starting out in your career, did you get meaningful advice or help from a mentor?

My first few jobs were in the movie business, and I can honestly say mentors were scarce, at least for lowly production assistants like me. I spent my days trying to do my best, getting yelled out, and being bored. My next two jobs were in retail, both with abusive, female bosses. I reached out to a senior executive who tried hard to protect me. His early advice was not to let my boss know that we were meeting. That said, as the situation worsened, he transferred me to a different area; one year later, he wrote a brilliant recommendation that helped me get into business school!

So, I benefitted from the impact of a sponsor early on—someone who sticks out their own neck to help you. While things are much better today, it’s still possible to work your way through five or even seven years without much mentorship – particularly if you’re different… or diverse. It’s well researched that managers tend to mentor younger people just like them. I’m hoping to change that with this book. My research participants span a wide range on every dimension: age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, marital status, and even where they come from. Over 40 countries are represented. I hope that managers who pick up this book will be inspired to mentor people who don’t look like them, but who bring a different perspective.

Is there advice that would have helped you that you didn’t get?

A lot of advice might have helped me reach higher and take the right kind of stand earlier. I caused a lot of trouble for my early bosses! It was important for me to exert my individuality and I did it in some regrettable ways. Had I gotten help to redirect that energy into learning the business, those first jobs would have been so much more rewarding. I met challenges by noting them, and then sticking my head as far into the sand as I could. It took awful physical symptoms of stress (as in, a bloody nose daily), for me to confront my situation. When I did, I reached out for help. My work life improved, although it took a few years to let go of so much stress.

What can work environments do to encourage productive mentoring?

Companies that value mentoring take measures right from the start. They assign young mentors to every newcomer during an onboarding process, but they also encourage every manager to be a mentor. It’s part of the culture and considered part of the job, too. All managers are evaluated on their commitment to mentoring – and their actions. That makes it easier for younger professionals to seek mentors, since they’re only doing half the work. Receptive managers do the other half.

Another part of the mentoring culture has to be respect for honest conversation. Most people don’t raise issues because they feel judged or fear career-limiting outcomes. A lot of those conversations are also difficult and uncomfortable for both parties. It takes skill to hold them effectively. Mistakes, poor reviews, lackluster work, reticence to speak up, overwhelming pressure are all opportunities for mentoring and professional growth, if managers and their team members are willing and able to face them directly. The first thing to do is to withhold judgment about the other person. Then stand in their shoes to experience the conversation from their perspective.

In the course of your work, have you encountered a common misperception about what it takes to build a successful career?

I sure have! It’s natural to assume that our own example is the way it’s done, and to foist that upon mentees, with great intentions, even if they are very different us. I write that it’s natural because organizations historically created career paths that everybody followed. Success was practically guaranteed by stepping in the footprints of the manager ahead, becoming like him, and working hard. It’s not like that today for a few reasons. What worked well in the past may not work at all in today’s faster changing, more unpredictable, and more complex work environment. Generalists have given way to specialists. People are forging their own paths and many are finding success at younger ages. It’s no longer good advice to put your head down, make your boss successful, and suck it up for ten years to become a vice president. Making your boss successful, of course, is still pretty good advice for anyone, but not the head down and waiting it out parts!

The #MeToo movement has revealed how widespread workplace harassment is – and how high the costs can be for both victim and perpetrator. What advice would you give to working people about avoiding, or dealing with, that peril?

None of the over 220 interviews covered sexual harassment, which is not to say that no one encountered that. However, a few individuals shared low points at work related to working with jerks, bullies, villains, creeps, or worse. Abuse of power lay at the center of those stories, and the way forward for the storytellers was clear. I was alert to these situations, given my own poor experiences early on.

The first step is self-awareness, which doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes, you might not recognize the signs and instead, blame yourself. Fear can also cause you to tolerate a bad situation longer than another person might. That happened to Hannu, who suffered greatly by someone he had brought into his startup. He had had no experience working with an irrational and explosive individual. Understandably, Hannu tolerated increasing abuse until his panic attacks were too big and too frequent to ignore. So, acknowledging that the other person is hurtful and abusive is a meaningful step forward.

The next step is to protect yourself by getting help, likely from someone with greater authority to change your situation. In one story in the book, Kayla went to her boss and boss’s boss to work out a different solution. The bosses had no option to get rid of the rude and explosive individual, but they offered Kayla the option of stepping out. When Kayla opted to stay in the situation, they took unprecedented steps to protect her from being alone with the bully.

The steps you take may vary based on your situation. It’s critical to protect yourself first. Only then can you gather the strength to help others. Sometimes Human Resources is part of the problem, and sometimes it offers the right kind of help to correct a bad situation. Elizabeth suffered so much at the hands of an abusive senior colleague that she prepared to leave. As the story unfolded, she turned to HR at the corporate office and got great results for her colleagues.

Your background is in business. Did writing books come easily to you? What challenges did you face in this new career?

Call me crazy, but I love writing. That’s a good thing, since I do an awful lot of rewriting. For me, writing is a by-product of thinking. When my thoughts are mixed up or confused, writing is tedious. Sometimes, the link from my brain to my typing fingers short circuits. That’s when I can say what I think but I’m at my wit’s end when it comes to writing down those thoughts. Luckily, that doesn’t happen often. If you find writing painful, practice speaking. Speak your piece and work from there.

I admit that I have two degrees in English literature and my first dream was to become a painter! So that mind’s eye to hand coordination is practiced. I also have comfort with simple words. My challenge is to structure my thinking well enough before starting to write things down. Wading through thousands of words in order to discover the structure is painful. It’s much better to start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, in order to draw the structure. I learned that working with someone who can be both sounding board and challenger eased the birth of the structure. My agent played that role a bit, and then my brother pitched in for the heavy lifting.

Most people face the challenge of getting published. If you’re starting out without the advantage of a platform or connections, start small. That’s what I did. I wrote white papers and articles with colleagues well before setting out to write a book. The internet is a beautiful thing! You can write micro-articles and publish them yourself. You can write posts on your social media. You can write stories. Do it over and over because you can. That may be enough to satisfy the urge to express yourself, and if it’s not, it could the start of the journey toward a book. For example, a few months ago I began a blog. I think four people read it regularly, but hey, that’s a start!

Do you have a writing tip or habit you’d like to share?

I start with intention. There are days I dread writing. I know I have to do it, and I’m not inherently excited. My writing is going to suck with that attitude. So, before I write (hours before), I reflect on what I love about the specific writing task ahead. It could be the people I’m writing about, the insight I want to express, or the readers who will benefit. I set my intention and feel grateful. Writing is a luxury. It’s a creative act, even when my output is technical. It’s a joy to struggle, because eventually, I will arrive at a solution that feels magical. Some people have to work in a factory. I get to sit at a desk and look out the window. That’s pretty greatWhat other books about work have inspired you?

I’ve read a lot of books about Meaning and Happiness, and still feel drawn to the next one. They’re not specifically about work, but they offer fantastic insight into making work more meaningful and fulfilling. The first one I found was Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. I was so inspired that I read Learned Optimism and then tracked him down to connect. It led me to Carol Dweck’s Mindset. My team brought me Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and I’ve read it over and over. Dr. Frankl wrote about the Holocaust, and how meaning can be derived: suffering (that is not gratuitous) offers it, but also love and work. I’m lucky in love and I’ve always enjoyed working hard. That book gave me the insight as to why.

I like small (as in short) books that nail their topic, like John Kotter’s Power and Influence. In general, I find a lot of business books hard to read. I fall asleep, I don’t relish the writing, or I lose the thread partway into it and have to plow through again. That’s when I go back to my favorite authors who write about life: Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton to name a few. Maybe that’s why my books include so many stories.

(Photo Credit: Ylva Erevall)


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